The shortest verse in the Bible describing Christ’s reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus portrays a God who apparently feels deeply the anguish of the human condition.
In the 2000 years since, his followers have given him plenty of reasons to despair. The release of a report last month by the Anglican Church of Australia into Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) within its ranks, serves as only the latest example of a litany of failures (in what has, historically, been a very mixed bag).
The study was commissioned by the church and its top line findings make for very sobering reading. While it is not at all a surprise that IPV exists in some form in a church that welcomes all comers, the prevalence of the abuse among Anglicans is alarming. According to the research, IPV amongst Anglicans was the same or higher than the general population, and worse among those who are regular attenders, as opposed to being nominally Anglican.
In response to the direct question, “Have you ever been in in a violent relationship with any partner”, 22 per cent of Anglicans said yes, compared with 15 per cent of the broader public. But once respondents were asked about specific examples of abuse 44 per cent of Anglicans said they had been victims of domestic violence, compared with 38 per cent of the general population.
Especially concerning is the finding that Biblical teachings related to marriage, gender roles and forgiveness are sometimes used and distorted by perpetrators in a manner that turbocharges already incendiary situations, adding to the anguish and suffering of victims. The full report won’t be released until August, but all indications are there won’t be much by way of comfort once we get to read it. Well might the founder of the faith feel like weeping.
Ironically, Jesus himself was famously radical when it came to the dignity and status he afforded women. And the early church (especially by First Century standards) was considered a safe-haven and place of stunning opportunity for women – one of the reasons the faith grew so rapidly.
Theologian and Anglican Priest Professor Sarah Coakley says that at its inception, “Christianity set before women a true possibility of complete transformation on equal terms alongside men.” But Coakley is painfully aware of how much that vision floundered beyond the heady early years.
The factors leading to domestic abuse are complex, but for people occupying church spaces today, something like a back-to-the-future posture towards the flourishing of women would be a start.
There is a clear and urgent need for the church to pay attention to this information emerging from the National Anglican Family Violence Project, and to carefully consider what it means for its communities going forward. Questions need to be asked: Is there something particular to these communities that makes them susceptible to abusive relationships.
Christianity is into dealing with the dark truths of the human heart as well as the wonderful grace of God.
Rev Ian Powell, Rector of St Matthews Anglican church in Wanniassa in the ACT, wasted no time addressing the issue after the report came out. Speaking at all services about domestic violence, Powell said he knew it would be difficult but vital to tackle it. “Christianity is into dealing with the dark truths of the human heart as well as the wonderful grace of God,” he said.
Early in his career Powell would hardly have believed what he now knows to be the case. “For me it was quite an education to start taking domestic violence in the church seriously because [initially] I just assumed that of course a Christian man would never do that … But to discover the percentages was very disturbing.” At Wanniassa, Powell has made clear public statements about the reality of IPV in the church, painted it as a clear evil without excuse, and offered whatever support is needed to parishioners in abusive situations.
Something like that swift and clear reaction will need repeating around the country, along with implementation of recommendations to ensure churches become safer, healthier places of refuge that, at their best, they can be. The one bright spot in the report was the indication that faith communities can indeed be places of assistance to sufferers of abuse, and that teaching equality in marriage, marriage as a covenant and God’s mercy and love can empower victims to leave abusive situations.
The Anglican Church is to be commended for looking seriously into an issue that plagues our society and is a stain on the institution. The test now will be to see the extent to which appropriate introspection will lead to effective action. Victims will be eagerly watching on.
Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the co-presenter and co-writer of the historical documentary For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.